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Town in America’s Heartland Honors World-Renowned Muslim Hero

1 September 2010 13 Comments

Kathy Garms

Kathy Garms

“Elkader’s founders had no way of knowing in 1846, when they named a new settlement on the banks of the Turkey River in northeast Iowa after a widely admired Arab freedom fighter, that they were setting the stage for international learning experiences.”

Who could imagine that a small rural town in America’s heartland – Elkader, Iowa – would be remembering a 19th century world-renowned Muslim hero? Yet, that has become reality through the bonding of a tiny dot on a map and a book. Thanks to John Kiser’s biography, Commander of the Faithful…The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader (1808-1883), a much needed message of tolerance, respect and inter-faith understanding has been delivered directly to our doorstep.

In the mid-1840′s, Abd el-Kader became known throughout much of the world for his cunning yet chivalrous resistance to a French “civilizing mission” in Algeria. He later became widely known for humanitarian actions that saved the lives of thousands of local Christians and foreign diplomats in Damascus. All of his actions, in war and peace, were done in conformity with what he understood were the obligations of his deep Islamic faith.

Since 2008, promoting the message of Abd el-Kader’s life and his example of moral courage, generosity, learning, and open spirit has become a passion for me because it makes sense.

Being a product of Elkader where everyone knew each other, I was afforded a safe and nurturing childhood. We were free to roam the hills and explore in a community where people cared about each other. Life’s lessons were learned from family, friends, school, and trial and error with a keen distinction between right and wrong. Recent years, however, have brought the complexity of a global society, raising questions and showing us the need for more knowledge about unfamiliar cultures.

Elkader’s founders had no way of knowing in 1846, when they named a new settlement on the banks of the Turkey River in northeast Iowa after a widely admired Arab freedom fighter, that they were setting the stage for international learning experiences.

May 2010 Forum in Elkader. Algerian Ambassador Abdallah Baali (seated) with Abd el-Kader Education Project Team (John Boyer, Kathy Garms, Ed Ohlin, Sarah Sayeed, John Kiser)

In 1984, a sister city program began between Elkader (Iowa) and Mascara, Algeria—the emir’s birthplace. As sister cities president during 2007-2008, I was able to coordinate and facilitate exciting opportunities between our countries. Being invited to speak at the Council of Nation/Emir Abd el-Kader Foundation Human Rights Seminar in Algiers to honor the 200th anniversary of Abd el-Kader’s birth and visit Mascara were both an honor and a privilege. Elkader has in turn hosted ambassadors, participated in exchanges, and continues to build cultural bridges.

Getting to know our Algerian friends has expanded our global vision of “community.” It is necessary for all of us to reach outside our comfort zones to listen, share and respond appropriately.

Our friendship with Algeria was brought even closer when, soon after a devastating 2008 flood in Elkader, Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika sent a personal message of condolence to Elkader citizens, along with a generous, no-strings-attached gift of $150,000 to assist with flood recovery efforts.

In October 2008, John Kiser chose to launch his book in Elkader. As he spoke about our long-forgotten namesake, it became apparent to me and others that Abd el-Kader’s heroic life had great relevance for today. Here was a hero who was admired by President Lincoln, Queen Victoria, Pope Pius IX as well as French generals, former prisoners, Free Masons and Christian leaders.

As interest grew locally in learning about Abd el-Kader and his struggle to live righteously (“true jihad”), far from the media’s image, our outreach has embraced new partners within Iowa and beyond.

What began with a book launch has spun into an annual Abd el-Kader Essay Contest, first offered locally, now statewide. The contest offers scholarship money to Iowa high school juniors and seniors to evaluate the significance of Abd el-Kader’s life in light of current events in America and throughout the world. Our intent is to revive the emir’s memory and example for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

May 2008 Mascara. Kathy with university students

By late 2009, the essay contest evolved into The Abd el-Kader Education Project which today encourages people to learn about a different face of Islam that has been embraced by Muslim leaders in the U.S. and in Pakistan. Collaborating with the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, madrasa teachers in Pakistan are now using the Urdu translation of the book to reflect upon and discuss Abd el-Kader’s life as a model of righteous living. Pakistani essay contests have been stimulated, in part, by Elkader’s example. The Pakistan experience is inspiring similar interest in other Muslim countries.

New dimensions have been added to the Abd el-Kader Education Project. Barbara Petzen, Education Director for the Washington DC based Middle East Policy Council, will present the relevance of Abd el-Kader’s life story to the global struggles of today and the lessons to be learned at schools and conferences throughout the U.S. One Blue, a social media company founded by Sarah Sayeed and John Boyer in Washington DC, has been promoting Abd el-Kader’s story on their website as part of a broader goal to educate youth across cultural boundaries via the internet for global interaction.

It has become very clear to me that we must all move forward in seeking knowledge, wisdom, and friendships across the globe. Each of us has the capacity to ignite a spark to show the rest of the world how different cultures can live together in friendship, respect, understanding, and cooperation.

“’The form of worship may change but not the Master, for the God of the Christians is also ours. We are only different in the way we address ourselves to Him.”

-        Emir Abd el-Kader

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Kathy Garms is a volunteer for The Abd el-Kader Education Project based in Elkader, Iowa and believes each day is an opportunity to learn and give back to the world.

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13 Comments to “Town in America’s Heartland Honors World-Renowned Muslim Hero”
  1. Asma Akhras says:

    Hi Kathy:
    Thank you for writing such a great article and sharing with us your experience in your city, Elkader, Iowa. I wanted to share with you a blog posted by a friend of mine, who is a descendent of Abd El-Kader. Check it out:

    I hope you enjoy the article and more info about Elkader!

  2. Craig Strutt says:

    Thanks Kathy for such an articulate summation of the fruits of your hard work over the years! Truly we need more people to understand the concept of tolerance with the faith and ideas of others.

    As long as the goals are one of personal growth, helping others, and salvation, we truly are of one accord.

  3. irit says:

    Thank you Kathy for sharing your story. The work you are doing is much appreciated.We need more and more people to do this work of explaining the concept of tolerance and reconciliation, of collaboration and friendship.

  4. Sarah Sayeed says:

    Pleasure to read and marvel at and even more of a pleasure to be working with you on the Abd El Kader Education Project! Thanks, Kathy, for all your motivation, dedication, energy and persistence toward an enlighetened world view at a difficult time in our country’s perceptions about Muslims and Islam.

  5. Kris says:

    Hooray for a wonderful program of cross-cultural community and tolerance, and for all those devoted volunteers who have worked so diligently to guide this program into a truly global experience.

  6. Diane says:

    Kathy…you are a remarkable woman to undertake such a journey. I admire you greatly. Keep up the the good work in spreading cultural awareness and acceptance between our countries.

  7. Sidahmed says:

    Thank you Kathy for the good work, I hope you’ll keep doing the good work bringing PEACE and justice to this world.

  8. ReShonda says:

    Thank you for sharing your work, Kathy! What a fantastic project. Your work is both remarkable and honorable!

  9. patricia smith says:

    Wow, Kathy, not only is this an amazing example of connections across time, cultures, and faith — but being from northeast Iowa (Sheffield High School …. did we play basketball against each other?), I feel you are my neighbor. Fantastic in every way! Keep up the good work.

  10. Becky Olafsen says:

    Keep spreading the word, Kathy! Your commitment and energy will help find commonality among nations and religions that are more apt currently to look for differences. Although the task of world peace seems daunting, individuals(like Kathy) and organizations(like Abd el-Kader) truly make a difference.

  11. Dear Kathy:
    I first discovered the beautiful Elkader when I took the scenic route back to Algona from my sister’s home in Anamosa about 5 years ago. I love the town and its bridge and its beautiful houses and buildings. I never knew how it got its name, though.

    Tonight I was indulging in following some peace links (I am a big fan of the Nonviolent PeaceForce , and found your posting. I was so delighted to see this connection to one of my favorite towns, and so surprised and happy to see the connection to peace building.

    I, too, am doing my best to increase “tolerance, respect and inter-faith understanding”, as I volunteer here in Kashmir, which is a 90% Muslim state of India. I have been here nearly a year now. I fasted the entire month of Eid, and have nearly finished reading my English translation of the Koran. When I return to Iowa, I hope to share what I have learned about Muslim life and culture and beliefs with anyone who is interested in listening. In the meantime, I have been documenting my experiences on my blog. I hope to see you in Elkader at some point. Thank you so very much for what you have done, and for sharing it online, so I could find you!!!
    Diane Emerson

  12. Sara says:

    Wonderful story of how you are helping to bring understanding and appreciation for the namesake of our town. Thanks, Kathy.

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